Egypt’s covid-19 shift to online learning is spurring a push towards online degrees. But more regulation and resources are needed for it to work. 2020’s widespread move to online and blended learning showed that Egyptian universities have the core infrastructure to launch online degrees, and is pushing the Higher Education Ministry to finalize regulation to allow this, education leaders tell Enterprise. Benefits include increasing open access to education, critical thinking among students, and university internationalization efforts, they say. But new assessment methods, clear regulation, and substantial resource mobilization are also required.
As of now, the Egyptian E-Learning University is the only Egyptian university offering online degrees in a limited range of subjects. EELU offers online undergraduate degrees in information technology and business administration and masters’ degrees in e-learning technology education and software engineering, according to its website. Hundreds of students have studied there since it was founded in 2008 as a private university, before being nationalized in 2018. Its courses are accredited by the Higher Education Ministry.
The lack of gov’t accreditation for online degrees beyond EELU has been one barrier to widespread implementation: Online degrees are part of AUC’s long-term strategic vision, but part of the hesitancy in implementing them is they’re not currently recognized in Egypt, says Aziza Ellozy, associate provost for transformative learning and teaching. “It would certainly be a big motivating factor to launch online programs in Egypt if they were accredited by the Egyptian government,” she adds.
But with covid-19 forcing learning online, launching online degrees is now a more urgent priority: The British University in Egypt (BUE) had to fully shift classes to online platforms during the pandemic, which proved the model could work, says Mohamed Eid, director of BUE’s Internationalization Office. “We’re very happy with what we achieved, and this meant we could start really considering online education as one way of delivering our degrees.”
Now the Higher Education Ministry is finalizing online degree regulations, with accreditation guidelines expected soon: The ministry is working to allow universities beyond EELU to offer online degrees, says Mohamed El Shinnawi, an advisor to the Higher Education Minister. In early June, it issued a regulatory amendment allowing universities to provide online assessment. Now, a committee is looking at how to regulate online undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from Egyptian and international institutions and may issue guidelines for running accredited online degrees in the coming months, Shinnawi says. The committee is examining university profiles and rankings, the types of degree being offered, and their number of credit hours. Regulations will be wide-ranging, including what kind of platforms could be used, the means of delivery, caliber of teaching, and disciplines that can be studied, says Eid. They also have to cover things like technical challenges that could be faced in an online exam, says Shinnawi.
Having credible degrees from respected institutions is crucial: Online degrees can promote open education and access to knowledge, but some have more academic merit than others, says Shinnawi. “Not every online degree is credible, and if you just accredit all of them, it will be a mess.” An institution’s ranking and profile matters. “If the degree comes from Harvard or Oxford or NYU, these are very trustworthy bodies. But online degrees also come from places with less robust track records. We have to look carefully to see which degrees we really want to accredit for our students.”
Updating infrastructure is also important: Online degrees would depend on reliable internet access and robust infrastructure, so updating and upgrading systems is also a priority, says Shinnawi.
Private universities like AUC and the Universities of Canada in Egypt have started running online non-degree programs: AUC offers online non-degree programs in areas including sustainable development, journalism, and professional education for K-12 teachers, says Ellozy. UofCanada plans to launch some 8-10 professional development online non-degree programs in areas ranging from artificial intelligence to fashion design in 2021, says Hadia Abdel Aziz, associate dean of the Faculty of Business. Its parent university in Canada will primarily be responsible for course content and delivery, she says.
Online graduate degrees could be next: AUC doesn’t have plans to launch online undergraduate degrees yet, but graduate study is another story because the objectives for skill acquisition are different. “My guess is that we’ll start implementing online degrees at the graduate level in the next 2-4 years,” says Ellozy.
Advocates of online degrees hope they’ll enhance access and international reach: Running online degrees could allow BUE to reach more people in multiple locations and widen its international exposure, says Eid. Online degrees could increase access to quality education within Egypt among diverse groups, including students living in remote locations, students whose long commutes make in-person study difficult, or students with limited financial resources, says Abdel Aziz.
We can already see online learning increasing international exposure: The Higher Education Ministry has already embedded online learning into some of the new degrees it’s offering in partnership with international universities, says Shinnawi. “We call these international classes, rather than online classes, because the students could be interacting with professors based anywhere — in Louisville, in Arizona, in Birmingham in the UK,” he adds.
But is there a demand for online degrees among Egyptian students? Not really, say sources — though they expect this to change. The demand for online degrees in Egypt is still low, says Shinnawi. But diversifying the means of degree delivery is important to meet the growing demand for higher education, say Shinnawi and Eid. And once online degrees are established, they will prove popular because of the choice and flexibility they offer, Eid predicts.
Fairly assessing students is arguably the biggest challenge, because online and in-person assessment are so different, say multiple sources. Online tests also add extra pressure to overcome issues of tech infrastructure, cheating or plagiarism.
So online degrees will require a strategic shift towards assessment focused on evaluation and problem-solving, say Ellozy and Eid. Online quizzes, research projects, open-book exams with highly analytical questions, and presentations can all be used as creative alternatives to traditional in-person assessment, says Ellozy. But for online degrees to be effective, assessment based on how students use ideas, present alternative points of view, and defend opinions will become much more important than memorizing information, say Ellozy and Eid.
Cost also remains a big unknown: Online degrees could be very cost-effective, as the financial investment in getting them up and running is unlikely to exceed the cost of a regular degree, says Eid. But neither Ellozy nor Abdel Aziz are confident that costs will be less. Universities will need to invest in IT infrastructure, and if teaching staff need to give more time to individual students, there will be an increased demand on human resources, says Abdel Aziz.
There’s work to do before online degrees can be widely launched in Egypt, but if they prioritize quality and enhance accessibility they could be transformative. Egyptian students would benefit from increased access to information, exposure to multiple viewpoints through global connectivity, and the development of their critical faculties from new kinds of assessment — which well designed online degrees could offer, say multiple sources. They could be a highly interesting additional way to provide quality education, and are worth carefully researching and investing in, says Eid.
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